Viewpoint

June 8, 2023

National Water Resources Bill and NASS feeble attempts

NASS

National Assembly

By JEROME UTOMI

If there is any event in recent times that amply demonstrates that nations succeed or fail and define their essential character by the way they challenge the unknown and cope with fears, it is the Senate’s recent and final rejection on Tuesday June 6, 2023, of the controversial National Water Resources Bill 2023 after it was listed for concurrence on the order paper for consideration and passage.

Very newsy is the awareness that despite wide condemnation, criticism and description by stakeholders as a code that is out of harmony with moral laws, the Bill which was first introduced in 2018 spanned both 8th and 9th National Assemblies.

Adding context to this discourse, the Bill as introduced in August 2018  emanated from the Executive arm and, among other things seeks: to establish a regulatory framework for the water resources sector in Nigeria, provide for the equitable and sustainable development management, use and conservation of Nigeria’s surface water, groundwater resources and for related matters.’

Going by the content of the bill, it was easy for Nigerians to situate without labour that the greatest ill associated with it lies in its tendency to disenfranchising and separating Nigerians from ancestral ownership of their water rights and handover same to a set of federal technocrats by confusing Nigerians with the fallacy that ‘’ownership rights to water” is the same as “water use rights”.

Also working against the Bill at that time is the accompanying belief by Nigerians with critical interest that the urge to have the it passed is driven not by love for having the nation’s water resources judiciously managed or for the nation to develop agriculturally as claimed by the lawmakers, but by sectional and parochial interests.

A typical example in support of the above claim is the fact that some pro-bill senators in the outgone 8th Assembly used barefaced inaccuracies to mislead the Senate and drum up support for the Bill. For example, it was claimed on the floor of the Senate that the World Bank is waiting on passage of the bill into law to “grant” trillions of naira to develop Nigeria’s irrigation infrastructure. This cannot be farther from the truth, as the World Bank would never and cannot ask a nation to deprive its citizens of their inherited and cultural rights to water as a condition for granting loans.

After a very long and sustained outcry by Nigerians, the Bill was stepped down.

But before the dust raised by the introduction of such an obnoxious bill could settle, another was up as the 9th NASS in September 2019, had the bill re-introduced.

Like the experience and reactions by Nigerians when it was first introduced,  the Ijaw Youths Council, IYC, threatened  that if government should reintroduce what they referred to as inimical and controversial Water Resources Bill which was formally stepped down  by the 8th Assembly after much public outcry, that Southern Nigeria people will do everything lawful to resist the passage of that inimical Bill which tends to colonise them. The group in that statement warned  that the Bill should not be another petroleum laws that have denied the Niger Delta people right to controlling the petroleum resources in their land. And they warned that the Bill if passed is capable of causing a civil war in the country. This was in addition to other condemnations by Nigerians with critical minds.

What caused serious concern, going by what Nigerians were saying, is that the Bill viewed from a wider spectrum stands as a telling proof of the Federal Government’s insensitivity to the people of the Niger Delta and other riverine areas. This fears expressed by the coastal dwellers cannot be described as unfounded as it was a similar Decree 101 of 1992 which is now incongruously dressed up as an Act of the National Assembly (Water Resource Act Cap W2 LFN 2OO4) that robbed every Nigerian of their water rights as it was hurriedly signed into law by the then military president, Ibrahim Babangida, as his parting gift to Nigerians.

After some moments of debate, protracted accusations and counter accusations, the re-introduced bill went underground.

But in July 2022, the Federal Government in its usual manner confirmed that in Nigeria’s leadership corridor, once a direction is chosen, instead of examining the process meticulously and set the right course, one that will allow us to overcome a storm and reach safety before we can progress and achieve our goals, many obstinately persist with the execution of such plans regardless of a minor or major shift in circumstance, as it again made another feeble attempt to have the Bill reintroduced.

This particular feeble re-introduction coupled with other persistent inabilities on the part of the outgone President  Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government,  to promptly respond to the socioeconomic need of Nigerians  adversely turned public affair commentators, development professionals and public policy watchers, to a bunch that keep repeating one topic. 

For me, aside from ushering in an unjust law and set the table to truncate the nascent peace currently enjoyed in the country while ushering in another round of hostility as the people are committed to peace by any means necessary but may not be committed to becoming the victims of peace, if the Bill was passed and signed into law, it would have turned to be what future historians will certainly describe as a disastrously mistaken decision on the part of both the 8th and 9th National Assemblies.

To succeed in this assignment, the President Bola Ahmed Tinubu-led Federal Government must be holistic in approach and practise deliberative democracy.

Even if such or a similar bill is going to be introduced in the future, the NASS must pave the way for other stakeholders such as the civil society groups, water experts to fully make their inputs- submit memoranda and possibly be given the opportunity to make a presentation as it relates to this Bill.

As noted in a recent but similar intervention, government must desist from the current non-participatory approach to development in the Niger Delta and other coastal areas and embrace a broad-based consultative approach that will give the people of the region some sense of ownership over their resources.

Instead of taking away their resources, this author is of the view that this is an auspicious time for the Federal Government to come up with steps that will allocate more power and resources to the state and those at the grassroots.

Most importantly, it will equally be rewarding if the Federal Government  aggressively addresses the issues of youth unemployment in the region, weak regulation on the parts of its ministries and agencies, tackle oil companies’ lackadaisical handling of the environment, and ensure compliance with the implementation of the Global Memorandum of Understanding, GMOU, so entered with host communities.

Utomi, the Programme Coordinator (Media and Public Policy), Social and Economic Justice Advocacy, SEJA, wrote from Lagos, via:[email protected]